Eiji Tsuburaya

Eiji Tsuburaya
Tsuburaya having a break during the production of The Three Treasures, 1959.
Tsuburaya on the set of The Three Treasures.
Native name
円谷 英二
BornEiichi Tsumuraya
(圓谷 英一, Tsumuraya Eiichi)
(1901-07-07)July 7, 1901
Sukagawa, Fukushima, Empire of Japan
DiedJanuary 25, 1970(1970-01-25) (aged 68)
Itō, Shizuoka, Japan
Resting placeFuchū, Tokyo
  • Special effects director
  • producer
Years active1919–1969
Masano Araki
(m. 1930)
Eiji Tsuburaya Signature.svg

Eiji Tsuburaya (Japanese: 円谷 英二, Hepburn: Tsuburaya Eiji, July 7, 1901 – January 25, 1970) was a Japanese special effects director. Known as the "Father of Tokusatsu", he worked on 250 feature films in a career spanning 50 years. He is regarded as one of the co-creators of the Godzilla series, as well as the main creator of the Ultra series. During his rise to post-war fame in the wake of Godzilla (1954), it was widely reported that Tsuburaya was born on July 7, which is the high day of Tanabata (star festival), a sign of good fortune.[citation needed]


Early life

Tsuburaya was born on July 7, 1901, in Sukagawa, Iwase, Fukushima Prefecture (present-day Sukagawa, Fukushima), to a merchant family that manufactured malted rice. He was the first son of Isamu and Sei Tsumuraya, with a large extended family. He described his childhood as filled with "mixed emotions." When he was three, his mother died, at the age of 19, after giving birth to her second son. His father, who had been adopted into the family through marriage, subsequently left the family, and Tsuburaya was raised by his grandmother Natsu. Through Natsu, he was related to the Edo period painter Aōdō Denzen, who brought copper printing and Western painting to Japan, from whom Tsuburaya considered to have inherited his dexterity. His uncle Ichirō, who was five years older than him, acted like an elder brother to him, and Tsuburaya began to use the name Eiji ("ji" indicating second-born) instead of Eiichi ("ichi" indicating first-born).

He attended the Dai'ichi Jinjo Koto Elementary School in Sukagawa beginning in 1908, and two years later, he took up the hobby of building model airplanes, due to the sensational success of Japanese aviators, an interest he would retain for the rest of his life. In 1915, at the age of 14, he graduated the equivalent of High School, and begged his family to let him enroll in the Nippon Flying school at Haneda. After the school was closed on account of the accidental death of its founder, Seitaro Tamai, in 1917, Tsuburaya attended Tokyo Denki University. He became quite successful in the research and development department of the Utsumi toy company, but a chance meeting at a company party in 1919, set the course for his destiny—he was offered a job by director Yoshirō Edamasa, a job that would train him to be a motion picture cameraman. While the Tsuburaya family's traditional religion was Nichiren Buddhism, Tsuburaya converted to Roman Catholicism in his later years (his wife had already been a practicing Roman Catholic).

Early career and war propaganda

In 1919, his first job in the film industry was as an assistant cinematographer at the Nihon Katsudo Shashin (present-day Nikkatsu) in Kyoto. After serving as a member of the correspondence staff to the military from 1921 to 1923, he joined Ogasaware Productions. He was the head cameraman on The Hunchback of Enmeiin, and served as an assistant cameraman on Teinosuke Kinugasa's ground-breaking 1925 film, A Page of Madness. He joined Shochiku in 1925 and became a full-time cameraman there in 1927. He began using and creating innovative filming techniques during this period, including the first use of a camera crane in Japanese film. In the 1930 film Chohichiro Matsudaira, he created a film illusion by super-imposition. Thus began the work for which he would become known--tokusatsu, or special visual effects.

In 1930, he married Masano Araki. Hajime, the first of their three sons, was born a year later. During the 1930s, he moved among a number of studios and became known for his meticulous work. It was during this period that he saw a film that would point towards his future career. During an interview after his international success with Godzilla in 1954, he said, "When I worked for Nikkatsu Studios, King Kong came to Kyoto and I never forgot that movie. I thought to myself, 'I will someday make a monster movie like that.'" In 1938 he became head of Special Visual Techniques at Toho Tokyo Studios, setting up an independent special effects department in 1939. He expanded his technique greatly during this period and earned several awards, but did not stay long at Toho.

During the war years (the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II) he directed a number of propaganda films and produced their special effects for Toho's Educational Film Research Division created by decree of the imperial government. Those include The Imperial Way of Japan (1938), Naval Bomber Squadron (1940), The Burning Sky (1940), The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942), Decisive Battle in the Skies (1943) and General Kato's Falcon Fighters (1944). Tsuburaya's work on The War at Sea was so impressive that General MacArthur's film unit is said to have sold footage of the film to Frank Capra for use in Movietone newsreels as footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

During the occupation of Japan following the war, Tsuburaya's wartime association with such propaganda films proved a hindrance to his finding work for some time. He went freelance with his own production company, Tsuburaya Visual Effects Research (working on films for other studios), until he returned to Toho in the early 1950s.

Toho years

Tsuburaya in 1961

As head of Toho's Visual Effects Department (which was known as the "Special Arts Department" until 1961), that he established in 1939, he supervised an average of sixty craftsmen, technicians, and cameramen. It was here that he became part of the team, along with director Ishirō Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, that created the first Godzilla film in 1954, and were dubbed by Toho's advertising department as "The Golden Trio".

For his work in Godzilla (ゴジラ, Gojira), Tsuburaya won his first "Film Technique Award". In contrast to the stop motion technique most famously used by Willis O'Brien to create the 1933 King Kong, Tsuburaya used a man in a rubber suit to create his giant monster effects. This technique, now most closely associated with Japanese kaiju or monster movies, has come to be called "suitmation," a term that originated in the Japanese fan press during the 1980s. Through intense lighting and high-speed filming, Tsuburaya was able to add to the realism of the effects by giving them a slightly slower, ponderous weightiness. This technique, using detailed miniatures with men-in-monster-suits, is still being used today (but combined with CGI techniques as well) and is now considered a traditional Japanese craft art.

The tremendous success of Godzilla led Toho to produce a series of science fiction films, films introducing new monsters, and further films involving the Godzilla character itself. The most critically and popularly successful of these films were those involving the team of Tsuburaya, Honda, and Tanaka, along with the fourth member of the Godzilla team, composer Akira Ifukube. Tsuburaya continued producing the special effects for non-kaiju films like The H-Man (1958), and The Last War (1961), and won another Japanese Movie Technique Award for his work in the 1957 science-fiction film The Mysterians. He also won another award in 1959 for the creation of the "Toho Versatile System," an optical printer for widescreen pictures, which he built in-house and first used on The Three Treasures in 1959. (Tsuburaya was continually frustrated by both the poor state of equipment he was forced to use, and Toho's money-pinching that prevented the acquisition of new motion picture technologies.)

In 1960, Tsuburaya designed Toho's Special Effects Filming Pool with Yasuyuki Inoue, for the film Storm Over the Pacific. Over the course of four decades, Toho continued to use it for tokusatsu films. It was used in nearly every entry of the Godzilla series before it was demolished after the filming of the ending of Godzilla: Final Wars.

A loyal company man, Tsuburaya continued to work at Toho Studios until his death in 1970.

Tsuburaya Productions

In 1963, after visiting Hollywood to observe the special effects work of major American studios, Tsuburaya founded his own independent company, Tsuburaya Special Effects Productions (later called simply Tsuburaya Productions). In 1966 alone, this company aired the first Ultra series for television, Ultra Q beginning in January, followed it with the highly popular Ultraman in July, and premiered a comedy-monster series, Monster Booska in November. Ultraman became the first live-action Japanese television series to be exported around the world, and spawned the Ultra series which continues to this day.


Eiji Tsuburaya's grave at Fuchu Catholic Cemetery in Fuchū, Tokyo.

Toward the end of his life, Tsuburaya dedicated to the planning for a film titled Japan Airplane Guy. Despite preliminary work, it was never filmed. Tsuburaya was advised to reduce his workload due to declining health, but he continued to take on more and more projects, dividing his time between Tsuburaya Productions and directing special effects for two Toho films, Latitude Zero and Battle of the Japan Sea. In addition, Mitsubishi hired him to oversee a special exhibit at Expo '70, the World's Fair in Osaka. On January 25, 1970, at 10:15 P.M., he died of a heart attack caused by bronchial asthma, while sleeping with his wife in their home in Itō, Shizuoka. Five days after he died, on January 30, 1970, the Japanese government awarded him the "Order of the Sacred Treasure." His funeral was held at Toho Studios on February 2, with Sanezumi Fujimoto providing the services.


In 2020, filmmaker Minoru Kawasaki created a film loosely based on his unmade film prior to production of Godzilla, featuring a giant octopus. On January 11, 2019, the Eiji Tsuburaya Museum opened in his hometown of Sukagawa, a tribute to his life and work in film and television.


In honor of the 114th anniversary of his birth, Google made an animated doodle of his skill with special effects on July 7, 2015.




This page was last updated at 2022-12-24 11:28 UTC. Update now. View original page.

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